Saturday, 25 June 2011

If only Angela Carter wrote the news

One of my all-time favourite authors, Angela Carter, started her working life as a journalist in south London, reporting local news for The Croydon Advertiser, before she achieved literary success. Reading her rich descriptions of a world that only she had the eyes to see has made me wonder what it would be like to open a newspaper and read an article written in the style of The Bloody Chamber or The Magic Toyshop.

Since 2009, one Israeli daily has given its readers a chance to read news written by fiction writers and poets. For one day a year, timed to coincide with Hebrew Book Week, the journalists and editors of Haaretz, a publication often referred to somewhat derisively as Israel’s “thinking man’s newspaper,” give up the reins to a selection of Israeli and international writers, who take over on every section of the newspaper for an edition where “writers write the news.” Even the weather forecast is a poem!

I awaited the day of the 2011 Writers Edition, 15th June, with the kind of excitement that I used to reserve for birthdays when I was a child. This year, 53 writers had come on board to cover current events and give readers “a look at the news through literary eyes,” as the newspaper says on its masthead.

So what does “news through literary eyes” actually look like?

The news section echoed the Israeli public’s sense of ennui over the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the widespread sense of disappointment among the electorate in its government, much like the newspaper’s usual political stance. Four writers were featured on the front page.

Novelist Nurit Gertz used Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people” to express her dislike of Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman in a scathing analysis of his stubbornness and myopic take on Israel’s foreign policy. “With Lieberman,” writes Gertz, “since there are no other people, hell is I – and one can imagine how hellish it is to live in a world where, at every corner, as in a hall of mirrors, one can see just one image – that of Avigdor Lieberman.”

In what read more like a short story than a typical newspaper article owing to its use of the present tense, short-story writer and graphic novelist Etgar Keret reported on his experience accompanying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on an official visit to Italy the week before the edition was published. At a press briefing, Keret ask Netanyahu a question about the perception that Israel is passive and reactive in the peace process, and the feeling that people either love or hate Israel. Netanyahu answers partly with “this conflict is an insoluble conflict because it is not about territory,” and says that a practical plan for resolving it is to reiterate this idea at every opportunity. Keret speaks for many Israelis when he says “I try to smile, but after this conversation I just can’t summon a smile, or hope. Just despair.”

Poet Haim Goury laments the “withering” of Israeli socialism “in the face of privatisation, and the rise of the national and religious right” in a piece discussing the relationship between Zionism, Communism and the Soviet Union in the years leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and throughout its history. Today, he writes, “Israel is undergoing haredization from within, and is shunned, and cursed at and delegitimized from without.”

On a more positive note, Sami Michael, novelist and prominent Israeli activist, reported on plans to make Haifa, a city with one of the most mixed Jewish and Arab populations in Israel, a member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an association of more than 20 cities around the world that give refuge to persecuted writers, in partnership with International PEN.

The Haaretz editorial, “It’s all thanks to reading”, reminded readers of the centrality of reading and writing to the accumulation of knowledge, and challenged them not to abandon books in the Internet age “which presents an opportunity and a challenge to reading’s future.”

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa adds his two cents with an op-ed originally published in the Spanish daily El Pais last year. Here he advocates for the legalisation of drugs to end the violence caused by drug cartels, particularly in Latin America. Although the beauty of the original Spanish is lost in translation, his assertion that drugs should be legalised because no-one has the right to criminalise the things they don’t like, “including people picking their noses in front of you,” transformed the piece into a comment on the safeguarding of individual liberty in general, and the dangers of paths that can lead “to the suicide of democracy.”

American novelist Jonathan Franzen’s editorial piece, an adaptation of a graduation speech originally published in The New York Times, started off as an ode to his new BlackBerry, and turned into a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of true love and heartbreak in an imperfect world in which people are growing more and more accustomed to the narcissism and mediocrity of “liking” things, Facebook style.

Is there actually a difference between these writers, and normal journalists and editors? Could fiction writers permanently replace the entire staff of a newspaper? I would like to think that they can’t, that word limits and editorial guidelines would be too much for your average writer of fiction. Aside from that, aren’t journalists meant to carry the mantle of objectivity? Isn’t their main role meant to be guardians of the truth, as opposed to masters of the written word?

Postmodern theorists ask whether there is in fact a world out there which exists objectively for all of us, and question the extent to which a newspaper is a reflection of this world “out there.” In a way, I think I would prefer to read a newspaper that did not print breaking news from its local reporters, or reprint stories straight from the wires, but instead featured beautifully written, thought-provoking pieces by a hand-picked selection of the kind of writers that I like to read, dead or alive – which sounds, I guess, a little bit like that game where you name your ideal dinner party guests.

The Haaretz Writers edition is a creative, innovative stroke of genius, and I wish that more newspapers would take such a risk, or indeed, that Haaretz ran the edition more than once a year.

The idea, however, seems better than its execution. I was disappointed at how similar in style the articles were, at how little I got to see of a writer’s individual literary style, and at the absence of creative risk-taking within the articles themselves, with the exception of Keret, whose piece felt as if it was structured like a story. The world seen through literary eyes did not seem that different to me than the world seen through the eyes of Haaretz's regular reporters, and I did find myself thinking, as I read, "if only Angela Carter wrote the news..."


Alona Ferber

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